Pre-season paucity at Fleetwood Town

Is it worth getting up at 6am to write about the lumpen procession that most good-hearted Fleetwood Town fans witnessed on Friday night (versus Preston North End)? Is it worth the analysis and toil in trying to figure out how that same, fetid team the Saturday before against Bolton Wanderers managed to leave the field with a good degree of pride?

“We lost experience [over the summer]. We lost good players with experience. And in those situations experience helps you to stabilise the ship,” manager Uwe Rosler commented after the 5-1 drubbing on a rain-soaked night.

Nights tend to be crueller than days when things go bad. A player can hide his honest expression in a dark corridor away from the full gaze of accountability, but what he can’t escape is the Dracula-esque sense that he’s had the blood drained from him.

What won’t come out in a candid way, despite the “young squad…learning curve” rationalising from Rosler, is the fact that midfielder Jimmy Ryan and striker David Ball – players of good repute – were offered meagre contracts to stay; Ryan, the post-injury ‘stinker’ of an annual income whittled down so much that he could barely afford a new beard trimmer and Ball – the only player to participate in all 46 league games last season (39 starts) – top scorer with 14 goals, effectively hit around the chops with a dockside fish when in negotiations.

For Ball and the sake of his career, it was probably time to leave anyway. He has been an incredible servant to Fleetwood – five years of love and the occasional, irrepressible shot which left a keeper dumped on his derriere. This is the moment at 27 years of age when he either ‘does the business’ in a grandstand season elsewhere (Rotherham) or becomes a squad player kicking his heels in the stands. Such is the spotlight on a striker that each game is critical.

With Ryan, he decided to cross the divide – move from Fleetwood to the somewhat derelict set up at Blackpool. Not exactly like moving from Celtic to Rangers a-la-Mo Johnston, albeit with a two-year stint in between at Nantes, in the late 1980s but still high risk.

You never get a smile from Jimmy. Even when he’s shaking hands with Blackpool’s chief executive, Alex Cowdy – donned in his James Dean white T-shirt – Jimmy looks glum. What he initially brought to Highbury though was bite, possession, strength and the eye for a long-range shot. This diluted the longer he was at Fleetwood – for some reason going into his shell and becoming more defensive – but one does wonder what a Kyle Dempsey-Jimmy Ryan partnership could have produced for 2017/18.

Fleetwood have pretty much dispensed with the idea of a roughhouse midfielder it would now seem. Perhaps modern tactics have stolen the show. Perhaps yellow cards are an unwanted consequence of such inclusion (Conor McLaughlin, the yellow card king last season with a total of 10, was the other player of “experience” to leave, but he was a full back).

When you think of the players that have trod the Highbury turf in a proud, battling, partisan fashion, however – Jeff Hughes, Alan Goodall, Matty Blair, Eggert Jonsson, Jimmy Ryan – it is easy to get sentimental over a cruncher, an all-out fighter and tear-up merchant. What do Fleetwood now do when they’re being overrun?

Preston danced between our XI on Friday night as if they’d vapourised us, as if we were no longer physical entities or footballers willing to put our bodies on the line. Bobby Grant’s out-of-character expletive in the 76th minute (“F*cking tackle back!!”) summed up the impotence of the situation, the embarrassing charade, the witless gallops of the team clad in red and white.

What probably came to pass during such a torturous evening was the realisation that 2-0 against Bolton (the previous Saturday) was a smokescreen, a misleading result which reflected the Trotters ineptitude rather than our own velvety greatness. We looked settled on that fine afternoon, established one might say – not given to panic or chasing unnecessary causes. But…but…looking back, it would probably be wise to stick £100 on Bolton being relegated from the Championship than ourselves making the League One play-offs.

This isn’t a massively different Fleetwood team to the one that finished the 2016/17 season against a superior Bradford side. Think Nathan Pond for Ben Davies, Lewie Coyle for Conor McLaughlin, Jordy Hiwula for Ashley Hunter. And Conor McAleny for David Ball. But, in those replacements, despite the quality on show versus Bolton, you sense slightly less polish.

Pond, the old warrior, has been around since Henry VIII and continues to provide grit and leadership of a sort, but against clever opposition does he have the required pedigree to really understand the formation coming at him? Coyle looks tenacious and composed, but he is attempting to fill big Irish boots.

Hiwula appears classy and able to float, but he was a yard off the pace against Preston (message to the Huddersfield loanee: pulling out of dangerous tackles in a pre-season friendly is fine, but you still need to chase things down in a determined manner). As for McAleny – he has looked refreshingly bold, a wanderer extraordinaire with a sweet right foot. But will he be snuffed out of games when given little service from the midfield?

There is a bigger question here though: Will Fleetwood be able to cope in a more threatening League One now that Wigan, Blackburn, Rotherham, Portsmouth and Plymouth have joined the fray? Will those first three teams be depressed or looking to return to their rightful spots in the Championship?

And as for the south coast heavyweights promoted from League Two – will they undoubtedly want more success? The simple answer to this is that they will all be ravenous – capable of locking Fleetwood in solitary confinement if we allow it by believing that an organised unit is sufficient, enough, ample…resistance when faced with a more skilful opposition.

There were shortcomings on Friday. Yes – it was against a team one division higher up, but in that 2nd half massacre a few truths were seen blowing around the pitch and in the stand; facts that Uwe Rosler had hoped would stay locked in his personal Fleetwood safe:

  1. The heavy metal football, a-la-Jurgen Klopp, has not yet arrived. Sometimes, the opposition has more energy and sprightliness which kind of disrupts such a plan.
  2. Left back, Amari’i Bell was awarded the (Fleetwood) Man of the Match award on Friday for effectively NOT bombing forward. Every fan in the ground knows what this man is capable of – indeed, it is the duty of a wing back to threaten the opposition – yet we rarely see such a sight.
  3. Victor Nirennold, the long-legged Rennes giant, is rotting on the bench and by being played out of position when used as a substitute (at right back). His bark flakes off in the manner of a neglected tree on a daily basis. If Rosler cannot convert him back to his beloved position of central midfield, then this roaming giant deserves a train ticket to a more welcoming place.
  4. The purer the footballing technique, the easier on the eye it is, but if there’s no stampede up front then such efforts easily descend into the drab, mechanistic ways of international football (boring art with no soul). Fleetwood need to combine liveliness with dominance if they are to truly achieve.

The loss of McLaughlin and Ball has apparently left only Nathan Pond as a ‘talker’ in the dressing room. This is a worry for two reasons. Firstly, Pond is accepted as part of the old guard and may not be the best man to forage a way forward in what is a different era now. Secondly, there is no longer a commanding voice at the coal face (up front) but rather a gazillion juveniles: McAleny (24), Hiwula (22), Devante Cole (22), Wes Burns (22), Hunter (21).

If these players are incapable of venting or articulating their frustration and requirements to the midfield behind them – Kyle Dempsey (21), Bobby Grant (27), George Glendon (22) – then we are left with a corporate dressing room with too much power in the hands of the manager (head coach Uwe Rossler), technical director (Gretar Steinsson) and director of player development (Stuart Murdoch).

For this is the real danger – that kids taught to respect their elder peers, the systems and methods of the management in place and the fortune bestowed upon them courtesy of such rich training facilities will not speak up when the tactics are wrong, the player selection wrong and the hunger out of kilter.

Friday night was a spectacle – a spectacle for the wrong reasons (certainly in the 2nd half). Too many sets of feet were taken off the gas. Too many players sub-contracted their responsibilities. I was all set to write a flattering piece on the seamless transition from the McLaughlin/Ball era to the Coyle/McAleny one, but then a bunch of fraudsters wandered out after the half time break as if jangling around in the hood.

Togetherness was absent. Leadership was absent. Penetration was absent. What I saw was a collection of icebergs content to bob along the surface of the pitch in the hope that someone else would rescue them or clatter into the land opposite. Even Dempsey was absent at times – now that is rare, our most important player, perhaps dispirited, perhaps crumpled by the averageness around him. Dempsey – the 21-year-old, but with the maturity of someone five years older.

Let’s hope no one gets hold of a video of this performance which would be on the cutting room floor of any self-respecting studio. What it shows is how easy it is to go from satisfaction (vs Bolton) to hurt (vs Preston) – both in the crowd and hopefully in the dressing room afterwards. If you peg your life or general happiness to football then there would have been a tortured scream through the car window driving home Friday night, the feeling that a cull of talent and belief had taken place.

Is it time to maybe bring in a water carrier, a tireless engine in the midfield area in order to free up wave after wave of attack or will Rosler hold firm in the belief that Dempsey, Grant and Glendon are sufficient to orbit around providing the ‘flyers’ (wing backs Bell & Coyle) are working effectively?

German minds are always efficient. If something is 1mm out of place, then rest assured such intellect usually spots it. The concern for Rosler perhaps is that his team is now short of leaders. Nobody wants a Ryan bollocking a Ball of course as happened in 2016/17 when Ball apparently failed to track back, but a sense that someone knows how to turn things around when the storms hit would be nice – immeasurably better than monitoring the directionless zombies that trotted across the Highbury turf between 8.30pm and 9.15pm Friday gone.

Some of the players against Preston, in their heads, were evidently still messing about with paddles or white water rafting in Austria. The bond-forming purpose of such escapism is all well and good, but when you’re ripped apart a week before the season begins it’s time to put down the paddle.

Against FC United of Manchester on Tuesday, 1st August there will be neediness now – the chance to see if any of the squad’s second string can outdo what has become quite a fixed and rigid first team XI (locked down by Rosler’s unwavering, yet at times byzantine precision).

There has always been a secret playlist at Fleetwood with the names of promising ‘upstarts’ ready to swing into position should we require them. Top of that list previously was Nick Haughton – singled out by Alex Ferguson as the player most likely to make great strides.

Perhaps now the names Ashley Nadesan and Jack Sowerby should be bugging head coach Rosler, using up his ink and demonstrating that thrust of a different kind to Friday does exist.

Either that or we stash a load of steroids in Ashley Hunter’s locker and hope that he doubles in size overnight.

The Author

Jeff Weston

Author of Wagenknecht (ALL MEN crack up at 40) and Pitchside, Ringside and Down in the Table Tennis Dens.

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